Critical Perspective

A Perspective on the Text

The Quiet American has attracted a wide range of critical reaction from those who see it is as yet another of Graham Greene’s fascinating explorations of the psychology of moral dilemma, to those who feel that it says nothing new and is simply an anti-American diatribe. And perhaps it contains elements of both these things. However, to see it as just one of these – or, indeed, to focus on whether Greene is pushing the communist barrow – would be to deny the richness of the text and the range of discussion it promotes.

Thomas Fowler, the hard-nosed and experienced reporter – he eschews the title ‘journalist’ seeing it as describing someone who is too commercial and slick, and possessed of opinions – has spent his life insisting that it is possible to embrace non-involvement as a mode of existence. As they sit in the watchtower on the road from Tanyin, he tells Pyle “’it’s lucky I’m not engagé , there are things I might be tempted to do – because here in the East – well, I don’t like Ike. I like – well – these two. This is their country’” (p. 97-8). Pyle scoffs at him saying that he is just “’ arguing for the sake of arguing. You’re an intellectual. You stand for the importance of the individual as much as I do – or York’” (p.97). And this is perhaps the crux of the matter, the central dilemma for the reader and, incidentally, for Greene himself. As Fowler asks more than once, “Was I so different from Pyle?” (p.185) , we are forced to question whether there is any such thing as the moral high ground; whether anyone at all can stand back an d remain simply the objective observer . Sooner or later, he Fowler finds that what Captain Trouin tells him is the truth, “’one has to take sides. If one is to remain human’” (p.174).

It is easy to laugh at Alden Pyle’s foolish schoolboy innocence and the way he lives his life as if it were some sort of ‘boy’s adventure-story’ (p.113), to see an excuse for his behaviour in Fowler’s almost indulgent comments: “I never knew a man to have better motives for all the trouble he caused” (p.60), an excuse for his behaviour . But the fact remains that “what is wrong with Pyle’s approach is its combination of innocence and brutal efficiency” [1]. Greene, through Fowler, works very hard to avoid his demonisation and one has to ask why, when it would be so easy to paint his behaviour as completely unforgivable. This is part of the joy of the book. Nothing is simple or straightforward in life or in The Quiet American . Fowler has no difficulty in claiming that Pyle is a friend. He speaks to Vigot of his all-round American boyish decency with a kind of muted admiration and defiance: “He’s a good chap in his way. Serious. Not one of those noisy bastards at the Continental. A quiet American” (p.17). The conflict of interest that arises from this quasi-approval is reminiscent of Holly Martins’ difficulty in recognising Harry Lime’s criminality in The Third Man also by Graham Greene. Like Martins, it is not until he Fowler is confronted by the results of Pyle’s dangerous sincerity – ‘A woman … on the ground with what was left of her baby in her lap… the headless torso on the edge of the garden’ (p.162) – that he realises ‘you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.’ (p163). As readers, however, we might feel a stirring of suspicion about such apologetic condemnation. One feels obliged to ask whether Fowler is less critical of Pyle because secretly he sees the American as a younger version of himself with qualities he would quite like to embrace. In a sense, although he is overtly proud of his neutrality, there is a fine line between this and apathy . T he fact that we are aware of Fowler’s tendency to lethargy in other areas of his life makes uncertainly and distrust more likely here.

It is tempting to suggest that through Fowler we hear the authorial voice, and sometimes that would seem to be true. Although Greene was a confirmed anti-colonialist, the closeness of his identification with Fowler suggests that he is sceptical about those who completely dismiss it. In Fowler’s conversation with Pyle in the tower, it is Pyle who speaks disparagingly of colonialism and Fowler who suggests that the alternative is just as hypocritical; that colonialism does at least signify some sort of continuing support for the country under threat. He brands Pyle’s version of support as “’encourag[ing] them with a little equipment and a toy industry’” (p.96). It is episodes like this that lead the reader to ask whether Pyle and Fowler are not simply two facets of the one persona. It has been suggested, ‘there is a bit of Pyle in all of us’ [2]. But in some ways, this begs the question. Fowler’s relationship with Pyle seems to be a paternalistic one in many respects and perhaps this is what offends him most, that Pyle simply feels that it is acceptable to walk in and take Fowler’s ‘girl.’ The situation is made even more ridiculous when, after Pyle’s declaration at Phat Diem, Fowler says, “I suppose I ought to knock you down”. Fowler’s words are typical of the way he sees the world and his recognition of the ‘fictional’ nature of Pyle’s behaviour and understanding. Pyle underscores this in his response that is straight from the Boy Scout guide to fair play: “Of course,” he said, “you’ve every right, Thomas. But I boxed at college – and I’m so much younger” (p.73). These put the battle onto the level of the jungle. They give it a sort of logic that Fowler immediately rejects and they move the relationship between the two away from that of child and indulgent parent, to the conflict between dominant males. Whilst such a view separates the two, it also ironically draws them closer together. We can see that if Greene is represented by Fowler, Pyle also represents him. Through the two it is possible to see a development of ideas from those of the young, idealistic but naïve person to the more experienced, more wary and older person who has not just learned about history at school but has actually lived through some of it. This is not all, of course. Many have seen the two men as symbols of ‘the American/European dichotomy’ [3], the old and new order occurring in the world at that time. Fowler as the more developed of the two finds himself in the position of having to choose as he sees where Pyle’s stance will inevitably lead if allowed to continue. He cannot remain with clean hands, that is, disengaged or neutral, forever. But were it not for Pyle’s assault on the thing he holds most dear, we might ask whether engagement would be as assured.

This conflict of interest also arouses one of the most interesting points of discussion within the novel and that is the question of Fowler’s impartiality in regard to Pyle’s death. It is true that Fowler doesn’t immediately embrace the chance to have his rival for Phuong’s affections destroyed. It is true, too, that Greene has provided us with enough information to allow us to agree with Fowler ’s assessment that Pyle is simply too dangerous to continue to exist. However , what makes the whole thing more difficult for us is that we have been made privy to Fowler ’s fears and longings. We have seen something of his private life and his inadequacies , and we have been privileged with his self-doubt and the reluctance with which he makes any move that is even faintly reminiscent of engagement. In fact, we have been presented with a flawed but essentially decent man who is in many ways an “everyman” with whom we can empathise. Where we stand on his decision to give the signal to the trishaw driver will almost certainly be about how we feel about ourselves.

In the end, Fowler finds for himself things he has denied in the certainty of his sophistication. As he waits for Pyle knowing he won’t come, he finds himself praying to a God in whom he does not believe. When Phuong reacts with joyous pragmatism to the news of Fowler’s impending divorce – in fact, reacts in just the way Fowler has predicted to Pyle – he feels a pang of disappointment. And as she runs from the room to tell her sister the good news, he thinks nostalgically of Pyle and wishes ‘that there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.’ (p.189). It is these dark and contradictory elements in Thomas Fowler that leave us with more questions than answers at the end of the book. It is, indeed, the story of a very quiet American, but it also the story of one who has lived to learn the truth of Captain Trouin’s words: “’We all get involved in a moment of emotion and then we cannot get out. War and Love – they have always been compared.” (p.152). Vietnam in 1951 is the perfect setting to explore such a collision.

[1] Michael Shelden, Graham Greene: The Man Within, p.398
[2] Michael Shelden, Graham Greene: The Man Within, p.403
[3] Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan, Graham Greene’s Childless Fathers, p.55


The Quiet American : An English website unit developed by George Marootus with additional material by VATE and contributions by Bianca de Vos and Sam Bryant. Website designed and constructed by George Marotous.
Contact.© English Faculty, Melbourne High School. 12 July 2010